The awakening: Bryce Canyon National park in Winter
Since our return to the United States, Lutgart and I have been blessed to see many wonders here in Utah. For those who haven’t travelled to Utah or the southwest of the United States, you will have to trust us when we say Utah houses some of the most scenic landscapes in the United States and indeed the world. Landscape diversity in Utah ranges from the northern part of the state where we are embraced by stunning mountain vistas and the southern part of Utah, home of incredible red canyons and desert. Home to five national parks (the most in any state) and numerous state parks, Utah is literally a photographer’s paradise. And the people…so friendly
Lutgart and I have travelled to each of the National Parks in Utah. Our first destination over a year ago was Capital Reef national park. For those unfamiliar with Utah, all the national parks are in the southern part of the state. So for us that means about a 4.5 hour drive from our home in Ogden. We normally go over a three day weekend. One other thing to know is we have yet to visit a national park in Utah in the summer months. This is for two reasons: southern Utah in the summer is boiling hot and the parks in the summer are super crowded! The fact that 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service will mean record numbers of people in the parks this summer. No, thank you. We much prefer winter and the glory of being alone. Much more…intimate.
So with that in mind in January of 2016, we decided to travel to Bryce, the one national park in Utah we had failed to see. Why the delay? Honestly, I was not interested! I had seen pictures of Bryce and they didn’t move me. Lutgart disagreed. Some of our customers would ask her about pictures from Bryce Canyon and some expressed utter shock we hadn’t been. Lutgart persevered and pointed out time and again we should go. Finally she said “Your birthday is coming up and you will officially be old, what about Bryce?” With such a kind offer how could I refuse? Better yet, our dear British friend Alison was coming to visit so we could show it to her as well. So Bryce it was.
Our biggest concern with going to Bryce in January was the weather. On the one hand, seeing red canyons with snow on top would be fantastic. On the other hand, driving to an elevation of 8000ft through bad weather had no appeal to me whatsoever. Even with the Subaru I wouldn’t try it but fortunately the weather wasn’t an issue. The three of us drove down on a beautiful Thursday with scarcely a cloud in the sky. We were amazed how quickly Alison adjusted to being in the states and her energy, no signs of jet lag at all. What a trooper!
After arriving at the Best Western Grand, we quickly unpacked our bags and got situated. The rooms were spacious, clean, and very reasonably priced. From our hotel to the Bryce visitor center was no more than an 8 minute drive. We paid for our yearly pass and received a map of the park. When we visit a park for the first time we always stop at the visitor’s center. The internet and books are great for information but nothing beats talking to the park staff who know the area, especially if they have been working at the park for over 20 years! The sales woman at the visitor center was more than generous with her time and information. Treasure.
Finally, we entered Bryce proper. There were more woods than I expected. Shortly we started to see signs such as Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, and Inspiration Point. Since they were all reasonably spaced apart, we decided to go to sunrise point first. The parking lot was easy to find and a few cars were about. We donned our Yaktraks (which we bought at the visitor’s center) since snow and ice covered the ground and slipping was easy. I grabbed my camera bag with my trusty Panasonic GX7 and a new edition, the Olympus E-5MKII. I had traded my Panasonic GH3 and some other equipment for this camera. Unfortunately, I was/am still learning the interface for this little beast and the curve is steep. This camera has lots of power but also confusing menu options.
So we made the short walk to the rim, with Lutgart and Alison in front. I turned on the E-5MKII and filmed the occasion. I could hear them talking, excited by the view.. I turned off the video and approached the edge. What I saw staggered the senses.
I don’t know what I expected but this wasn’t it. I like to think I’m a decent photographer able to capture the beauty of what I see through the eye of my camera but there is nothing like BEING there. To hear the snow crunching under your feet, to FEEL the cool wind on your face. To stand one foot away from oblivion and embrace not fear but awe. To be so small and inconsequential in the face of such majesty and grandeur, humbling.
There in front of us stood one of the supreme earth gestures. Row upon row of archeological wonder in the form of hoodoos. The eye witnessed massive red canyons towering above everything. Timeless elements almost beyond understanding. Nature at its creative zenith and it was all there to be seen. Bryce should not have been our last stop; it should have been our first.
After nearly an hour we drove to the next point, eager to see the differences. And there were definitely differences. Inspiration point was exactly as the name sounded. Whereas sunrise point was more condensed, Inspiration point was more spread out, like a famous theater with row after row of seats. But instead of seats we witnessed columns of stone figures stacked neatly together. Stunning doesn’t begin to cover it. Lutgart and Alison eagerly took in the views while I, with great impatience, set to the task of capturing this treasure. I had to calm myself and put on my photography hat. Concentrate on the moment and focus!
Our last stop for the day was of course Sunset Point. For those wondering, all these stops are within 5-10 minutes down the same road we entered the park on. Bryce is one of the easiest national parks we’ve ever navigated. Only if you drive to Rainbow Point (15 miles away) would you have to go out of your way. Sunset point itself is very close to the park entrance. We eagerly exited the car and headed to the rim, taking in beautiful views as the light started to fade. The landscape was transformed and the sky softened. The rocks of Bryce started to glow and we were all in thrall watching this masterful performance. Bravo!
With great reluctance we returned to car, excited by what we had just witnessed. Shortly we were back at the hotel and discussing dinner options. Perhaps I should say “option” because Ruby’s Inn across the street from our hotel is the only place open in Winter that is close. I’m told they actually own the Best Western Grand were we were staying. Our hotel served a decent breakfast starting at 6.30 but no lunch or dinner.
I’m going to say it now. Dinner was a disappointment. The food at Ruby’s was poor I’m sad to report and not cheap. I can’t speak for everyone, but we were not happy. The problem is that in winter, the food options at Bryce are very limited. Outside of the hotels and gas stations, there is nothing within miles of Bryce. Please keep this in mind, especially if you come in winter. When we return to Bryce we will be bringing our own food…and wine. Ruby’s also has a general store but the prices are inflated! We drove about 10 miles away to get frozen dinners for our last night. Dinner was our only negative experience, so be warned!
We arose early the next morning for coffee and a light breakfast before heading to sunrise point. We wanted to see the canyon come alive and it was definitely worth the short trip. Whether you are a photographer or not, sunrise in Bryce Canyon is a must! Be sure you arrive at least 30 minutes before sunrise for the best show. The beauty of coming in winter is that the sunrise is much later so you get to sleep in and will encounter small groups instead of huge crowds as opposed to the summer.
The canyon is facing east and there the light started to emerge. Slowly the light illuminated the morning sky, bringing the canyon into view. The snow reflected the light, giving definition to the red hoodoos. I made my way to the top of sunrise point where a small crowd of photographers had gathered. After quick greetings I set up my tripod and watched the light grow stronger, capturing the red rocks as they started changing. I turned around anxiously looking for my companions and slowly they were approaching, stopping to take it in. I focused on the western side of the canyons, just blown away with the primitive, rugged beauty. Both ladies were almost at the podium when it happened. The sun crested the horizon and….oh.
It was like being at the world’s greatest symphony. And the moment had arrived, the crescendo, the peak. Imagine as the maestro who had been hidden by the curtain, suddenly emerges as the music explodes. Suddenly, the veil is lifted and the light just explodes across those snow covered red cliffs and the land stands instantaneously transformed by the light and the moment. Oh, high drama indeed!
A split second after this moment my wife and friend arrived. Too late, too late she cried waving her wooden leg! I just couldn’t believe what I saw and couldn’t believe they missed it! I think the look on my face said it all. Though disappointed they missed it, we all enjoyed the rest of the morning. We returned to the hotel for a second round of coffee and breakfast. After a short rest we returned to Sunset point for a hike of famous Navajo and Queens Trail. Snow and ice still covered the ground so we put on our Yaks and started our decent. But shortly into the walk we stopped to shed layers. Everyone was overdressed and I returned to the car with hats and coats. It was probably 40f. Ironic when you consider the week before the high temp was only 17f for a high!
The day was beautiful with high wispy clouds and patches of blue sky. It is one thing to photograph Bryce from the rim, quite another to walk among stunning hoodoos. The first hoodoo you encounter is the hammer of Thor, centered and apart from the rest.
What a structure and there were many more such sights to come. We carried on, just loving this setting and appreciating what we were experiencing, walking back to sunrise point and then to our car back at sunset point, we completed our loop.
If you go to Bryce there are numerous trails and you’ll enjoy the experience far more if you emerge yourself by hiking.
I loved reading your essay on Bryce! Reading your essay was like reading the Utah version of what Powell wrote many years ago when he discovered the Grand Canyon; beautiful poetic words painting a picture of vast pristine beauty.. I went to Bryce many many years ago and look forward to going back! Looking at your photos makes me realize there is so much of Bryce that I missed and/or didn't appreciate the way I would now... Thank you for the constant inspiration via your amazing photos and beautiful words!
I came upon you through LULA and must say I'm much impressed. Wonderful images, but these days good photography is not that hard to find on "the inter-web". I mean this as no disrespect. I feel what sets you apart is your writing, an ability that hasn't changed the way digital imaging has changed photography. Great web site and blog. Welcome home!
Dear dear Mark and Lutgart,
As if your magnificent photography is not enough, the poetic majesty of your words and descriptions of all you see has the magic of taking the reader with you on your journey,of feeling the crisp air on the cheek, the crunch of the snowy paths beneath the boot and the thrill of beholding what is easily one of my most favorite places on earth. THANK YOU FOR SHARING
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